What can belonging look like?
For Don Kwan, a third-generation Chinese Canadian visual artist from Ottawa, he chooses to turn his own experiences and challenges of being a queer Asian artist to establish a broader conversation about identity, representations and intergenerational memory-making.
“Belonging has been a lifelong struggle for someone like me that identifies as a queer, Chinese Canadian artist,” said Kwan.
In his latest exhibition at the Ottawa Art Gallery (OAG) entitled Landscape, Loss and Legacy, Kwan explores the notions of inclusion and exclusion thought the story of his family, who are the well-known owners of Shanghai restaurant on Somerset Street, the backbone of Ottawa’s Chinatown.
As part of the exhibit, Kwan works with OAG’s Firestone Collection of Canadian Art (FCCA) — a well-known collection of historical art from the modern period (1900-1985) — and puts his own take on some of the pieces included in that collection.
Kwan’s selection of artworks from the FCCA is displayed alongside a transformed Chinese palace lantern; a Muskoka chair installation; and a light box triptych featuring photographs from the artist’s Landscape and Loss series.
Searching for belonging in the Canadian landscape
According to Kwan, all these pieces are designed to lead the viewer to the same question: ‘What does it look like to belong in the Canadian landscape?”
“As I examined more than 1,600 works in the Firestone Collection, my attention was drawn towards the lack of representation by artists historically underrepresented and in the margins,” said Kwan.
In the collection, Kwan curated artworks by artists like Rita Letendre, Kazuo Nakamura, Takao Tanabe and the work Chinese Poets (1974) by Maxwell Bates.
Sponsored by TD, this exhibition is part of the OAG’s Firestone Reverb series, where contemporary artists are invited to respond to the Firestone Collection by putting new work into conversation with its historical pieces. Kwan is the first Asian-Canadian artist to participate in the series.
“The voices of historically underrepresented artists were like seeds that threaded themselves throughout the collection,” Kwan said. “Seeds that would one day germinate and allow an artist, like myself, to step into the conversation.”
The piece Kwan is most excited to share with audiences from his own contribution of work is Fortune (2021) from his illumination series.
Fortune is a vintage Chinese lantern reimagined with sourced personal images of his family transferred onto brightly colored glass.
“This work is a chance for me to make visible the beauty of my family stories in a piece of art,” he said.
Finding beauty in shared experiences
According to Alexandra Badzak, Director and Chief Executive of the OAG, the 2022 spring opening celebrates seven extraordinary exhibitions, including Kwan’s.
“From the climate crisis to ongoing conflicts spurred by colonization and racism, to the continuing pandemic, humanity is facing an extraordinarily challenging time,” she said.
“How better to position and engage change than through the work of contemporary artists who tell vitally important stories that help us to not forget and enable the experience of different perspectives so that we can, individually and collectively, move forward on a better path?”
Badzak said the backing by organizations like TD — through the Bank’s corporate citizenship platform, the TD Ready Commitment — make a huge difference to the level of support that non-profit organizations such as the OAG can give to diverse artists like Kwan.
“This is a pivotal point in my career because it invites me to partake, to belong and be included,” Kwan said.
“My hope is that people see the value and beauty in our shared experiences despite the challenges and hurdles we all face with belonging.”
Kwan’s Firestone Reverb exhibition is now on view in OAG’s Firestone Gallery and runs until January 23, 2023.
Can’t make it to Ottawa? The OAG has released a 3D virtual tour on their website so you can experience the space and learn more about the artworks virtually, and will soon be releasing a video walkthrough tour of the exhibition later this month.
“A commitment to helping broaden our art landscape to include more diverse voices is working to change art for the better, and it is vital for people to see themselves represented,” said Stuart Keeler, Senior Art Curator at TD.
“Art allows people to connect to one another, share stories and perspectives, challenge historical biases, inspire reflection and encourage dialogue. As part of my work, I am committed to helping actively support and amplify diverse voices in the arts in conjunction with the goal of Connected Communities, which is one of the interconnected drivers of the TD Ready Commitment, to help strengthen our communities and acknowledge the diversity of experiences across Canada.”